My pile of papers for this week’s General Synod (we’re in London from Wednesday to Saturday) is a mere 3.5 cm high.
If that frightens you, I have good news: it’s all now available on the General Synod App.
More about that and other ‘modernising Synod’ developments below.
What are we discussing this week?
Officially, the chief focus of the week is evangelism. But, as ever, there are other, unofficial currents flowing through the week, and so the other prominent thread will be human sexuality – both the work under the title ‘Living in Love and Faith‘ (long-term, official) and the ongoing rows about liturgy to be used with people who have undergone a gender change (current campaigning, unofficial).
We’ll get to the transgender row in a minute. But first of all, note the time being given to evangelism-related debates this week:
- On Wednesday, three contributions from Anglican leaders from elsewhere – North India, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Kenya.
- Thursday is an evangelism-free day. But on Friday we have three major items – Evangelism and Discipleship, evangelism on estates, and the Growing Faith debate on ministry among children and young people.
- On Friday we return to the subject with a Private Members Motion from Church Army’s Mark Russell about encouraging youth evangelism.
A change in C of E culture?
In the last few years there has been a sea-change in C of E culture about mission and evangelism. Money is being put into new ways of providing a Christian presence across the country; training of clergy is changing; there’s an emphasis on encouraging and equipping lay church members to be more intentional (as we have to say nowadays) about their witness in their homes and workplaces. In the language of the Discipleship paper GS 2118 – read it here), we need to help people move from being simply ‘attenders‘ to becoming ‘advocates‘ and ‘apprentices.’
Now, some people in the C of E are allergic to the word ‘evangelism’. That is not to say they do not believe in sharing the gospel, and converting people to the Christian way. But they shy away from the word, with its connotations/baggage (delete as you feel led) of Billy Graham, Bible-bashing and badgering people, rather than bearing witness in other ways. People are unlikely to make speeches against the various motions, but there will be reservations from some about the vocabulary and style – someone will ask what ‘missional‘ means. I expect some amendments will be put to remind us that being a Christian is not just about getting the numbers up, it’s about faithfulness, and the Kingdom, not the Church.
- The Estates Evangelism paper GS2122, written with characteristic clarity and directness by the Bishop of Burnley, Philip North, can be read here.
- Shameless plug: my own diocese calls our Urban Priority parishes the ‘Magnificat’ parishes. Read about them in our excellent Manna magazine’s special ‘hidden treasures’ edition here.
- The Growing Faith paper (Children and young people) GS 2121) is here.
The Bishop of Oxford, Bishop Steven Croft, has written a thoughtful post about rethinking evangelism in the light of his work with the Roman Catholic Church (their word is ‘evangelisation‘).
- Read his post (not an official Synod document) here.
- Mark Russell’s paper on youth evangelism (GS 2124A) is here and a supporting document 2124B is here.
Changing and making laws
There is a heap of legislative business to get through , mostly on Thursday. This is detailed stuff – remember that Measures passed in the Synod become the law of the land – so we have to get it right.
So we’ll cover a wide range of ‘Miscellaneous Provisions’, including:
- setting out a way that we formally ‘recognise’ and ‘acknowledge’ different sorts of religious communities (yes, the C of E does have monks and nuns, as well as new-style religious communities) – giving the Bishops some oversight over monastic orders, while allowing their traditional independence to remain.
- allowing parishes to have electronic Registers of Services (instead of those fat blue books that are in every vestry, which are supposed to be kept as a full record of services held, numbers attending, and so on)
- setting up a National Register of Clergy – a list of those who are authorised to minister
- tidying up (and liberalising) – the rules on how ministers from other churches may conduct worship in Church of England premises
Something for everyone!
The wind of change is beginning to blow in Synod – a combination of a proactive Business Committee and the ‘Simplification’ agenda. I spot three things in this week’s work.
- The Synod App.
Lord, it is my chief complaint / that Synod papers are such a weight (as William Cowper did not quite write). But the great moan amongst Synod members is the bulk of paperwork that they have to handle. This session’s pile is not huge, but it’s enough to keep people up at night reading, carting bags of it around on the Tube, and so on.
So three cheers for the Church of England’s digital team, who have now perfected (well, hopefully…) the Synod App. This gives members (and anyone else interested) a timetable for each day with an instant link to the full text of all the relevant papers.
- You can download the app from Google Play (Android devices) or Apple’s App Store. It is really easy to use
- Yes, I have tried it and it comes with the bathwellschap Seal of Approval
- There’s a guide to how to use it, if you need one, here.
- Sorry, Windows/PC users, we have to make do with old-fashioned downloads of the papers here.
I predict this will find a home amongst the many people who follow proceedings live on the internet, comment on Twitter, and so on, as well as with Synod members. It’s a gem.
2. Weekend working!
This has been a bit controversial. This week is the second time our winter meeting has run into Saturday.
The Business Committee have surveyed us all. There’s much reluctance amongst the current membership to continue with Saturday sessions in London – clergy hate it, as getting back home somewhat weary and then having to do a full Sunday duty is not nice.
Despite that… we’re having a revolution! They now propose a couple of full weekend (i.e. Friday to Monday) winter London sessions in the next 5-year term (2020-2015.)
Their reason for going against the views expressed is simple: it’s about getting younger, working people to join Synod next time. The theory is that if they are in work, a midweek meeting is a powerful disincentive to getting elected. Expect some entertaining debate on this on Wednesday.
3. Round up the usual suspects
The Business Committee have worked hard to reflect on how Synod works, and issued some interesting stats on last year’s York sessions, including hard evidence of who spoke and how many times. The grumble is always twofold:
- that ‘the usual suspects’ speak too often
- that too many clergy speak and not enough laity.
Now we have the stats to identify the usual suspects (thinks, hmm, better be careful here…) and a good analysis. We are colour coded, and its fascinating stuff – particularly good read for anyone thinking of standing for Synod in the 2020 elections. Read the speaker analysis here and read the feedback responses here. (Or find them on the synod App…)
Transgender and liturgy
In December, the House of Bishops sparked a noisy row when they issued some guidance on how parishes might help someone who has changed gender to mark that huge change liturgically. Their proposal emerged from Synod’s debate (my account is here) on welcoming transgender people.
However, it has upset those who find it hard to agree that gender can be ‘changed’, and who object to formal liturgy being adapted in the way the Bishops suggest.
Yes, they’ve launched an online petition. It’s a closely worded, seven-point questioning of what the Bishops have said, and as ever, ends with warm affirmation and pledges to pray for them. Read it here.
Inevitably, a rival open letter, with some big-hitter signatures, has been produced in response and published in the Church Times,
I am interested in two dogs that have not barked in the objectors letter:
First: who got invited to sign up to it? I wasn’t asked. As a mildly recognisable member of Synod, signed up to both the Evangelical Group EGGS and the Open Synod Group, I am, frankly, amazed that the people behind it did not include me on their mailing list.
And that’s another thing. Who is behind it? The website is totally anonymous: no lead campaigners, no Council of Reference, not even a person or group who own the website. So – is it the work of one person? A small group of dissatisfied Synod members? A bunch of disgruntled non-Synod members? Or one of the usual interest groups and Christian charities? A Sussex priest, David Baker, confesses via the Christian Today website that he is “one of the informal team which has formed out of this spontaneous mass movement of Anglicans and got together to make the letter happen.” But that’s not exactly a full disclosure. I think they should unmask themselves.
Anyone can sign up to the petition if they wish. But the organisers are being dodgy with data, it seems to me, as they offer an option to go on their mailing list without saying who they are, or what they will do with your data.
There are two debates going on at once here.
- a theological and liturgical discussion about what the proper response is to current changes in scientific and social understandings of gender dysphoria.
- a sympathetic response to anguished personal and pastoral issues that are faced by, and alongside, trans people.
The Grand Petition against the Bishops’ guidance will not feature on our agenda – but you can bet your bottom Euro it will come up in Questions on Wednesday evening, particularly in the light of the Revd Dr Tina Beardsley’s decision to withdraw from the Living in Love and Faith project. UPDATE: The Questions paper is now available. There are more than two dozen Questions on this. You can read the Questions and the Answers here. Doubtless people will be honing their carefully-crafted supplementary questions between now and Wednesday evening…
Tactically, I am not convinced that petitions inviting the Bishops to reverse a decision they’ve taken are going to get very far. If you want to clue yourself up on the row…
- the Bishops’ December announcement is here
- the strangely anonymous petition website is here.
- there’s a heavyweight paper from Martin Davie here – he explores how (in his view) the Bishops have spent fifteen years getting this issue wrong.
- Ian Paul’s Psephizo blog has a characteristically clear assessment of how he thinks the Bishops have put the pastoral cart before the theological horse.
- The Radio 4 Sunday programme had a report on the issues, including an interview with the Bishop of Liverpool, Paul Bayes – listen here, starts at 13 minutes, 22 seconds in.
- As ever, Thinking Anglicans have good summaries and links.
To date, the objector’s letter has attracted just over 3,000 signatures. The round robin letter put out by those supporting the Bishops’ lines has 592 names attached. It’s a proxy war. Questions on Wednesday night will be the next raiding party. May we be spared a ‘my-letter’s-got-more-signatures-than-yours’ argument.
Living in love and faith
This is the title given to the wide-ranging work on human sexuality that was set in motion after the Synod’s rejection of the Bishops’ document. We are to have a presentation with questions on Thursday afternoon.
This will be a tense one: a lot of people have a lot of emotional energy tied up in this, whether (simplistically speaking) they are ‘for’ or ‘against’ change in the way we deal with same-sex relationships and LGBTI issues. If the petitioning (above) is a proxy war, then this is the real thing.
You can read the documentation we’ve had here. I’ll say no more until we hear the presentation.
In other news…
- Only the Daily Mail could make Thursday’s general updating of church legislation (The Church Representation Rules) into a cunning plot to ensure the next Archbishop of York is a woman. Read the full story here and weep. Or laugh.
- An important motion (for me, at least) is the Bishop of St Alban’s Saturday morning one about gambling advertising. This is one of those issues where the Church, and Synod, can attract national attention on a subject of irritation, or concern, to many people. Give yourself a couple of hours watching TV (non-BBC, of course). Just see how many bingo/tombola/sport-betting ads you, and your children, and gambling addicts are being force-fed. GS2125 will give you the background – read it here.
- Before Synod proper starts on Wednesday the House of Clergy and the House of Laity will meet (separately) to consider progress on the Covenant for Clergy Care and Well-being. If you are ordained, or a church officer or PCC member – or just know a vicar – you might want to read this document.
- Saturday morning brings a motion about mission and ministry amongst Roma, Gypsy and Traveller communities. That will, I suspect, be an eye-opener to many of us.
- The closing item on Saturday will be a motion from the two archbishops about the state of the nation – divided, tense, uncertain – and it calls on parishes and national leaders to do things differently, highlighting particular to effect on the marginalised and poor. It could be a ‘motherhood and apple-pie’ debate. Or, given the B****t chaos around us, there might be some sharp words of prophecy.
It could be a good week!
- You can follow it on Twitter – for the informal and informed snappy stuff #synod is good; for the official ‘results’, you need @synod
- There will be a live video feed here
- I’ll be posting a daily round-up in my usual unbiased (ish), comprehensive (sort of) and cheerful (undoubtedly) fashion after the end of each day: catch it the next morning or click on the Follow button on the right to get an automatic email telling you when its ready.
* Changes: One of those David Bowie songs that ‘everybody knows’. Surprisingly, though released in 1972 as a single, it never got into the UK charts until after his death in 2016.